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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Can the problems of charter schools be fixed?

Asians Class animated GIFAndy Smarick, a partner at Bellweather Associates, a senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a former deputy commissioner of education in New Jersey for Governor Christie, and a man with a long list of other affiliations with conservative groups and politicians, loves charter schools. He sees them as the wave of the future, replacing “failing” public schools in urban and suburban areas and bringing everyone the excellence that thus far has been elusive.

Smarick sees two conversations going on today about charter schools. To one side are those like himself who are trying to figure out the new paradigm of schooling, in which privately-managed charter schools are a permanent part of the landscape. This conversation deals with finance, governance, how to get it right. It assumes that charter schools are a permanent part of the landscape and the question to be solved is one of tinkering.

On the other side are people who worry about whether charter schools are a blight that damages public education and should be closely scrutinized for their finances, their boasts, and their policies governing admissions and suspensions. This side refers to hedge fund managers, privateers, and exorbitant executive salaries, and makes big headlines out of what Smarick considers the extraordinary miscreant.

One could match anecdote with anecdote, but more important are questions about deregulation, about exclusion of students with disabilities and English language learners, lack of transparency, and lack of accountability by charter schools that refuse to tell the state or even their own boards how public money is spent. Will American education improve if more public money is shifted to non-educators who hire uncertified teachers and whose use of public money is not disclosed?

One of the most corrupt states in the nation, in relation to charter schools, is Ohio, where the Thomas B. Fordham Institute is legally headquartered and authorizes charter schools (none of its charter schools have been implicated in the major scandals.) the governor and the legislature receive handsome contributions from the charter industry. 

A recent article in the Columbus Dispatch written by Denis Smith, former overseer of charter schools for the Ohio State Department of Education, makes a valuable counterpoint to Smarick’s complaint about charter critics. Denis Smith writes about 19 Gulen-associated schools now under investigation.

Smith writes:
“At a State Board of Education meeting this week, four former charter-school teachers testified on alleged unlawful conduct at Horizon Science Academy Dayton High School, including what The Dispatch described as “test cheating, attendance tampering, sexual misconduct and other misdeeds…….”
What the State Board heard from the teachers helped to shed light on a chain of 19 schools in Ohio managed by an out-of-state operation that staffs these buildings in part by employing Turkish citizens holding H-1B visas.

But what the board didn’t hear is that these same schools are governed by a group of individuals, nearly all men, who may not be “qualified voters” — in other words, American citizens. 

Or that some of the schools were raided by the FBI last month. 

Or that the inspiration for these schools is a mysterious exiled Turkish cleric named Fethullah Gulen, who lives in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania and leads a religious and political movement that seeks to destabilize the government of his native land.

As bizarre as this situation is, the very idea that the Gulen chain are public schools is illustrative of what ails the charter-school industry in Ohio.

Consider these glaring legal loopholes:
  • Charter-school administrators are not required to hold any professional licenses or meet even minimal educational requirements.
  • Charter-school board members aren’t elected by or responsible to the voters. Some are hand-picked by for-profit management companies runing schools.
  • Charter-school board members do not have to be “qualified voters” (citizens) who are registered with the secretary of state’s office in recognition of their status as members of a public board.
  • With hand-picked, unelected boards, charter-school administrators can pay themselves exorbitant salaries that can match those of local superintendents responsible for the education of thousands of students in multiple locations.
  • Many charter schools employ highly paid administrators but compensate their teachers well below those in other public schools, leading to constant staff turnover.
  • The for-profit management companies that operate many charter schools think that their mission and vision (read: profit) supersede the legitimate interests and aspirations of the public.
  • Charter schools are exempt from more than 150 provisions of state law that otherwise are applicable to school districts, including a requirement to annually report the names, salaries and credentials of licensed employees to the State Board.
  • There are no restrictions on the payment of public funds for recruitment of students, advertising or payment for celebrity endorsements; there is no ban on using public funds earmarked for charter schools for political campaign donations.

The issue confronting this state is not about any individual charter-school chain. It’s that the legislature has created an unregulated, incoherent nightmare that allows for-profit management companies, entrepreneurs, national charter-school chains and ill-prepared developers to operate in a murky industry that ill-serves young people.

If we are to have charter schools in Ohio, their legal basis must be that they exist in similar fashion with public schools, be subject to the same requirements and not be favored by so many questionable exemptions. Chapter 3314 of the Ohio Revised Code that governs the creation and operation of these schools must be scrapped in its entirety.

For these “schools of choice,” we have no other choice.”

In addition to Mr. Smith’s concerns, Ohio and other states should investigate the extraordinary salaries paid to charter CEOs, some of whom are not educators, yet are paid $400,000 or more. And inquire about the lobbyists hired by charter chains to obtain special privileges, or to obtain exemption from accountability. 

They might ask why charter boards in states like Ohio must sue the charter operator to get financial information. They might be vigilant about the for-profit entrepreneurs who have become multi-millionaires with money intended by taxpayers for schools, not investors. They might ask sharper questions about community public schools that lose resources to shady entrepreneurs and ultimately close.

So long as the charter industry buys favoritism from state legislatures, as long as amateurs win public dollars to run inferior schools, as long as virtual charter schools get rich while supplying poor results, there will continue to be critics–and should be.